Although The Haunted Halls is the first novel written by Glenn Rolfe, I don't think it was his first published book (although I may be wrong...I'm sure somebody can sort it out for me). I did get the sense while reading it, though, particularly during the book's latter half and into a strong climax, that this book showed a writer really coming into his own as a storyteller, building up a good head of steam, and delivering the goods with confidence.
Rolfe sets out here to tell us a good, old-fashioned, gory ghost story. The Bruton Inn reminded me a bit, in equal measure, of The Overlook Hotel and Kingdom Hospital, two haunted locales that King fans will know, although Rolfe gets decidedly more splattery and keeps the violence cranked up to the max. Fair warning - there is quite a bit of sexual violence, rape, and attempted rape throughout, and it gets fairly unsettling at times.
Horror-wise, this is a really fun trip and I definitely do not want to stay at this particular inn next time I make my way to Maine. It's a fun and enjoyable read, but also not without its problems. The first and most consequential thing comes down to the characters themselves. It's a problem (for me, anyway) that I noted in my prior review of Rolfe's Things We Fear, as this is an author who loves to toss in a lot of names without a lot of personality or development. There isn't really any reason to get attached to many of Bruton Inn's guests and staff. Character development is so thin that I spent the early part of the book getting Kurt and Ken mixed up because they both started with a K. Although the following letters were different, they had little else to really distinguish them.
On the other hand, Rhiannon and Buhl, a shaman of the get-rich-quick variety, as well as the book's evil entity, the Ice Queen, really come into their own and shine during the book's final third, as does the author himself, where we really get a sense of his capabilities and the knowledge that he can create interesting characters with depth. I just wish those abilities had been spread around a bit more evenly throughout the preceding segments. It's an issue I think a better developmental editor could have helped Rolfe fix, or at least advised him on. Despite the barrage of under-baked characters, and although this book could have used another pass by a proofreader, Rolfe does have a knack for writing horror and he's an author I want to see rise above these kind of editorial mishaps. He can turn some pretty damn good phrases, and when he's firing on all cylinders I'm fucking invested as all get out in his work. I also dug the Buhl character, and where Rolfe left him, well enough that I'd snap up a story around this shaman in a heartbeat.
If you don't mind horror with a large cast of cardboard cutouts, or can at least look past that and just want a run ride with lots of blood, guts, and sex, The Haunted Halls is certainly enjoyable, and the Ice Queen makes for a memorable force to be reckoned with. If the character's had more depth, and the editing hadn't been quite so rough or, in places, absent, this would have been an easy, easy five stars.
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